Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Philosoma (Playstation)

Horizontal / Vertical / Rail
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sony Computer Entertainment
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment in 1995


Even before I knew of how Philosoma played I happened to enjoy the game somehow. As a shooter fan, I've always played all sorts of variations of the genre, but my favorite ones were always those of the classic scrolling kind and the into-the-screen titles like After Burner. An ambitious game self published by Sony at the start of the Playstation lifetime, Philosoma dared to mix all the styles I mentioned above in a fully narrated, nicely animated story-driven outer space adventure, and by doing so it kinda catered to this personal dream I've ever had: the one of playing a shmup that changed its orientation frequently for a more cinematic, dynamic, fluid experience.

A lenghty intro details the formation of a special squadron sent to investigate a menace lurking in planet 220. The player assumes the role of a rookie pilot, initially taking the backseat in the action as the more experienced in the group fly ahead. Constant audio communication conveys tension during the battle, which switches perspectives very often and even puts the player in a situation of flying out of the screen, as in a rail shooter where you see the ship from the front instead of behind. Every single transition is animated into the next, in a total of four levels with several bosses and fast, relentless enemy waves. Each life has five shields, so death only comes when all shields are gone. A visible warning tells you when you're on your last remaining shield.

Intro to Philosoma, Western version
(courtesy of YouTube user TGApuleius)

The adoption of an energy bar for every life can be deceiving, for Philosoma is eager to eat away lives in a snap if you don't know what's coming. It's one of those shooters that value memorization a lot, with a strategic touch in the assortment of weapons at the player's disposal. There's a vulcan shot, a laser, a charge shot (A-Break) and a rear shot (Ray-B), all selectable at any moment at the press of dedicated buttons. Each one can be upgraded twice, but you need to be using the weapon for its power to be increased when picking up the corresponding item. All weapons are decent to use at any moment, but it took me some time to properly value the awesome power of the A-Break. Provided you have it maxed out (level 3), larger enemies and bosses yield much faster with well placed/timed charge shots.

Some items are certain to be generated every time in the same place, others are random. A green POW provides one upgrade to the currently selected weapon, while the purple POW maximizes all of them instantly. SHIELD recovers one energy hit, 1UP grants an extra life, BGR adds a bomb (a.k.a. buster grenades) to the bomb stock and only one type of auxiliary missiles can be activated for the current life (SRM for homing missiles, MRM for straight missiles). With an extend also achieved at every 100.000 points, one could say Philosoma isn't stingy at all on extra lives. A tiny detail in the power-up system is that every time you take an item you become invincible for a split second.

Experienced players will surely know where the inspiration for the abovementioned detail comes from. There are many others, including the classic rail shooters from Sega, the Thunder Force series, biological themed arcade titles like X-Multiply and even unexpected stuff like Xenon 2 (which is evident in the main boss fight of the 2nd stage). A particular part of this level throws a special nod to the Macross universe as the ship assumes a Gerwalk-like form and slides over a flat plane that sounds like something straight out of  a horizontal variation of Viewpoint. There might be more throwbacks to other games in there, but these are the ones that stand out the most.

The A-Break weapon in its full glory

On visual merits the game has a mix of standout moments and only a few segments with poorly designed textures, the latter mostly during rail shooting sections. The first stage is particularly tame when compared with the rest of the game, which boasts some rather impressive backgrounds. The level of variety also follows the constant shift in scrolling perspectives, even though the highlights are reserved for the horizontal parts due to the best results in mixing 3D polygons and sprite art. In that sense Philosoma predates more famous shmups like Thunder Force V, R-Type Delta and Einhänder. An excellent example of graphical and musical prowess is the section in the 3rd stage/phase that starts with a descent in a diagonal shaft followed by gigantic fan blades and a fast scrolling area, ending with an awesome revolving background. Most of the time the music is of a subdued nature and works well with the graphical style, but some tracks (like the one of the section above) do shine a bit more.

As engaging and exciting as Philosoma visually is, it's kinda baffling that Sony let players down by finishing the game with one of the most anticlimactic final bosses I've ever seen. At first I thought an enormous, menacing creature would emerge from that huge dome, but the thing just fades away as the end movie starts rolling. The emphasis on the FMV snippets, which are unlocked in a special movie gallery as you advance through the stages, is also another aspect that irks me a little. Why not give some love to the scoring system, for example? Not only does the game ignore high scores completely, but the size and visibility of the score in that transparent HUD are horrible. I had a hard time getting a proper picture of my result as I was fighting the final boss.

It would be amazing if a worthy STG developer looked back at the great possibilities hinted by Philosoma. Fleshing out the graphics and adding a scoring system that goes beyond the kill'em all basic rule would do it for me. Recent titles like Astebreed follow the same structure, but somehow fail to capture the idea of the multiple perspective design like Philosoma did. After all, it manages to deliver great atmosphere with intense action and tight gameplay. It's a rarely seen experience that every fan of the genre should have the chance to try.

My best 1CC result on the Normal difficulty is below. The last sight you'll ever have of your score in any run is this one during the fight against the last boss. Depending on the chosen difficulty, different epilogues narrated by different characters appear in the end. Control inputs can be selected from six distinct preset configurations. I used type E.


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